Tuesday 15 September 2015

Never Too Old to Rock - Reload Festival at The Royal Norfolk Showground

When I was a child The Royal Norfolk Showground only meant one thing - motorcycle display teams, parachutes, and police dogs jumping through hoops of fire. Yes, the Royal Norfolk Show - an annual day trip with the school with packed lunches being fed to sheep and coming home with bagfuls of freebies and brochures. Oh yes, and it supposed to be educational.

 Nowadays the showground at Costessey is used all year round for everything from antiques fairs to classic car shows. And, for the last few years, it has also hosted a couple of two day music festivals. Last year I attended the second day of the Sundown Festival - very much a weekend for the youngsters with acts like Ellie Goulding, Clean Bandit, Ella Eyre and Jess Glynne appearing. The sun shone, the lineup was terrific, and I thoroughly enjoyed my day. This year I decided to give the Reload Festival a try out. Same idea as Sundown but for a, how shall I say, more mature audience.

To be honest, my decision was very much a last minute one. Having already managed to go to Radio 1's Big Weekend earlier this year at Earlham Park, followed by Latitude at Henham Park, I had felt that I had already achieved my fill of standing up all day in a field for one year. However, when I saw a friend's photographs from the Saturday at Reload I decided to check out the lineup and prices for the Sunday. Not only did the day ticket prices not seem too bad at £39 for adults, but the weather forecast for Sunday seemed to be better than had been predicted earlier in the week. And seeing that the Sunday lineup included two of my favourite 80's bands - 'Altered Images' and 'Red Box', I decided to book a ticket there and then. Rather than risk booking online and having to wait for a confirmation e-mail and barcoded e-ticket, I immediately jumped onto my Piaggio and headed off round the Southern By-Pass to the Costessey showground.

I arrived at the car park and was let in by the very helpful staff, who not only waived the £10 parking charge as I was on a motorcycle, but also let me leave the bike on hard standing really close to the exit. Last year I had to park amongst the cars on grass, and had worries about the bike being knocked over in the dark as the cars jostled to leave at the end of the day. I bought my day ticket from the box office, but found that I had to pay £45, six pounds more than the pre-sale price. Note to self - remember to make a decision a bit quicker next year, and book online.

By the time the gates opened at midday a reasonable, but not extensive, queue had formed and many seemed to have come well prepared with folding chairs as well as umbrellas. I had neither. I guess it goes with the demograph of the Reload audience. Whilst Latitude has a healthy mix of teenagers, families and aging rockers, the showground audiences are definitely more polarised. The youngsters come to Sundown, largely leaving Reload the following weekend to their mums and dads. Other than that the setup is remarkably similar - the stage gets a second weekend of use before being dismantled and shipped off elsewhere, the campsite takes in a slightly less rowdy crowd, and there are a considerable number of touring and motor caravans present.

The first act is due on stage at 1.00pm, and the rush is not to stand at the front, right up against the stage, but to claim pole position behind the track that forms a semi-circle about 100 metres back. Folding chairs are being erected in little clusters until all the spaces have been filled. From here there is an uninterrupted view of the stage, safe in the knowledge that no-one is going to pitch up immediately in front of you and spoil your view. Personally, old habits die hard. I position myself directly underneath the stage for an eight-hour marathon of craning upwards, but preferring to get up-close and personal, and able to see the whites of the eyes.

I have not paid out for a lanyard with laminated running times, so have to depend on the stage announcements to confirm the order of bands, although there is only the one stage so I am unlikely to miss anything unless I nod off. Besides, I know that Boomtown Rats are headlining, and the rest I can find out from the punters next to me.

First band up is to be Altered Images, who released three amazing albums in the eighties, and were one of John Peel's favourite artists. I am a little disappointed to find that this is not the original band line up, but merely the lead singer Clare Grogan accompanied by two female backing vocalists and performing to a backing track. Still, having missed the chance to see Kylie Minogue perform earlier this year at Newmarket Racecourse, I take consolation from getting to see my other fantasy female from the 80's, star of Gregory's Girl and Kristine Kochanski from the cult comedy 'Red Dwarf''. She has also appeared in Eastenders, and became one of the first 'video-DJs' on the satellite channel VH1.

Grogan's vocals are not always spot-on, some of the choreography gets hopelessly out of synch at one point, and she forgets the words to one of the band's greatest hits, but everything is forgiven when she is obviously having so much fun, engaging with the crowd, and winning everybody over with the same pop-pixie charm that made her everybody's sweetheart over thirty years ago. Married to former band member Stephen Lironi for twenty years, and now mother to adopted daughter Elle, Clare Grogan resolutely refuses to accept getting old, and tells the audience to do the same. She performs all the bands former hits, and also delivers a cover version of Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Up'. As she explained, "You have to keep things up to date". She brings Elle onto stage for the final number, 'Happy Birthday'. A lovely mother-and-daughter moment.

I knew that Katrina Leskanich used to be the Katrina of Katrina and the Waves, runaway winners of the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest with 'Love Shine a Light', written by the band's guitarist Kimberley Rew. He also wrote the 1985 million seller 'Walking On Sunshine'. What I did not know is that Katrina's father had been in the US Air Force based in Norfolk, and that they had lived in Feltwell before moving to Mildenhall. Her sister still lives in Nacton.

Katrina now performs with her own band rather than with 'The Waves', so although we got to see her perform 'those' two songs as well as the one which later became a hit for The Bangles (Going Down to Liverpool), we are not getting any of the original band members. I guess that is going to be the case for most of this Reload Festival, and most other 'reunion' or 'retro' pop events. Very few bands will stay with the same lineup for 30 years, any more than a football club will field the same team for that length of time. It is commonplace for bands from the 60's, 70's and 80's to continue performing with few, if any, of the original members. I guess I am just going to have to accept that.

To Katrina's credit she still has a belting good voice, and plays a mean guitar. She is not afraid to give us the new songs from her recent album 'Blisland', and I have to say the tracks are very good. 'Sun Coming Upper' is introduced as an updated 'Walking On Sunshine', and 'Texas Cloud' is a nod to her American roots. Think back to a mixture of Pat Benatar and Chrissie Hynde and you will get an idea of what to expect.

Next up are another previous UK Eurovision Song Contest winner, or three quarters of one anyway. There are currently two versions of Bucks Fizz touring and performing. One is still fronted by original band member Bobby G, whilst the other now features the other three original members finally back together again. It is this version featuring Cheryl Baker, Jay Aston and Mike Nolan, together with Bobby McVay (previously of 80's band Sweet Dreams) that is performing at Reload.

Whilst they all look a bit older than they did when they won Eurovision in 1981 (and who doesn't), they have all been performing the hits long enough to know them back to front and standing on their heads. And so it is that we get to hear the likes of 'When We Were Young', 'The Land of Make Believe' and 'My Camera Never Lies', before finishing with the inevitable 'Making Your Mind Up'. And yes, they do still rip the skirts off at the end. Brave girl, Cheryl, who by now is almost qualified  to take over from Barbara Windsor as a 'National Treasure'.


Still no sign or mention of Red Box (remember 'Lean on Me' and 'For America' ?). Instead we next get 'The Beat', or a version of the 80's 2-tone ska revival band from Birmingham. Again there are two versions in existence - one led by original vocalist and guitarist Dave Wakeling, and the other led by original singer Ranking Roger and featuring his son Ranking Junior. The other band members have all gone their merry ways, so whichever version you see will consist of just one original. The rest will effectively be new recruits.

We get the version led by dreadlocked Ranking Roger, and you have to admit he is probably the coolest guy at the whole of Reload. Dressed in a long black frock coat and bondage trousers he runs effortlessly through the setlist, and runs energetically across stage, criss crossing with son Ranking Junior in a rather natty suit. There is a wonderful cover of The Clash's 'Rock The Casbah' before ending with probably The Beat's greatest hit, 'Mirror In The Bathroom'.

Jimmy Somerville brings on an amazing array of musicians to back his set, and the result is awesome. The former Bronski Beat and Communards singer still has the most incredible falsetto voice, and certainly shows the current crop of bands like Wild Beasts, Everything Everything and Alt J how to do it properly. With a back catalogue of hits to draw from that includes his own 'Small Town Boy'  as well as covers of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes' 'Don't Leave Me This Way' and Sylvester James' 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)', his performance is a real high-energy barnstormer that leaves the crowd baying for more. A total and absolute pleasure and triumph.

Making a return visit to Reload after his appearance last year Mr Rick Astley is met with a (choreographed?) shower of women's lingerie thrown from the audience. He not surprisingly milks the female adulation for all that it is worth, but even he seems strangely bemused by some of the animated attention from elements within the audience, even pausing mid-song to jokingly remonstrate with one fan, " I am trying to do a gig here!". He still looks good as he admits to us that he will be fifty years old next year, and the voice still has the power and strength that it did when 80's hitmakers Stock Aitken Waterman took him from studio tea-boy to recording 'Never Gonna Give You Up'. Not my cup of tea, but then I don't throw bras on stage either.

Once Level 42 take the stage I know the game is up as far as Red Box are concerned. Perhaps I misread the lineup before I left home this morning. Perhaps they were actually on yesterday? All I know is that there is no way that Simon Toulson-Clarke's band were going to play above Mark King's thumb-drumming bass guitar work on any bill this side of Uranus.

Still featuring original keyboards player Mike Lindup alongside the legendary bass guitarist Mark King, the current line up of jazz-funk legends Level 42 is still pretty impressive, not least because of the immense back catalogue of hits. So many in fact that it is necessary to squeeze some of them into medleys just to make it onto the setlist. King's bass playing is mesmerising to watch up close, although I'm not quite sure why his custom-made guitar actually needs eight knobs, as well as an array of LED lights along the neck. I guess nobody is going to argue that he shouldn't be allowed as many knobs and lights as he wants. There is one slight hiccough when one of Lindup's keyboards fails to work, causing a number to be curtailed early. King's retort that he was "pleased it wasn't me that screwed up this time" wasn't convincing if intended as a jest. At the end of the day, though, how often do you get to see a guitar legend in Norwich?

And so we came to the headlining act. I missed Boomtown Rats at Latitude this summer, preferring instead to go and watch Kwabs and Young Fathers in the big-top BBC Radio 6 Stage. However, my admiration for Geldof goes way back to my first year at university in London when his arrogant arrival on the punk scene with the Rats and 'Lookin' After No1' made us all sit up and take notice of the Dublin upstarts. This was a good eight years before his famous "Give us yer fuckin' money" rants on LiveAid and his public profile being raised almost to that of deity. I still remember him as a loud-mouthed Irish pretender to Johnny Rotten's gnarled and venomous crown. His idea that we were all caught in a 'Rat Trap' is as valid now as it was then. It is just unfortunate that his beliefs and immeasurable good work with LiveAid have been overshadowed with so much personal tragedy.

It is therefore a rumbustious snarling snakeskin-suited Geldof that takes to the stage, a 63 year old elder statesman forced to maintain the stage persona of a reactionary 25 year old punk. Lead guitarist Garry Roberts, bassist Pete Briquette and original drummer Simon Crowe remain. Only guitarist Gerry Coot and keyboards player Johnnie Fingers (the one who always wore pyjamas onstage) are missing. The young woman next to me seems quite concerned by Geldof's antics and seems convinced that he must be stoned. 'Nah, it's all part of the act, just snarl back at him', I reply.

The set contains all of the hits, but Geldof's interludes and messianic rants do seem a tad odd, and I can see why the performance divides opinion amongst the audience. Personally, I viewed it all as the mark of a showman, a bit like the old Alice Cooper 'murdering' babies on stage, or Ozzy Osborne biting the head off a 'live' chicken. Rock and Roll is supposed to shock, as well as entertain. Once you are too old to do that, then you are too old to 'Reload'.

PS - Does anybody know what happened to Red Box?

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